Doctor Who in 1981 went through a bit of a low ebb. Despite the sharp rise in the quality of the storytelling of season 18, the ratings debuted at historic lows and were slow to rise. The sense was that the program was yesterday’s news, especially in the face of flashier competition like Buck Rogers.
Oh, we laugh now, but back then they were serious.
New producer John Nathan-Turner was eager to put his mark on the show. He commissioned a new opening sequence and invested in flashier special effects. Fortunately, the BBC hierarchy appeared to indulge him (this would be the last time they would, as a new generation of controllers from here on out would be openly hostile to the show). The comedy that had been so prevalent over the past three years was suddenly drained. Tom Baker’s bombastic, zany Doctor suddenly became sombre. The show played it as though he was suddenly feeling his age.
It was something of a tradition that the moody Tom Baker would offer up his resignation at the end of each season, perhaps to get the production crew to encourage him to stay. But, as script editor Christopher Bidmead and others noted, as Tom Baker’s dissatisfaction with the direction the show was moving in mounted, when the annual offer of resignation came up, there was basically silence and a slow nodding of heads. Everybody laughs about it now, including Tom Baker, but it was something of a coup d’etat.
Coup or not, the change may have been precisely what the show needed. The news of Tom Baker’s departure was greeted with shock across Britain. There was a generation of viewers for whom Tom Baker was the only Doctor. He had spearheaded the show’s sharp rise in popularity in North America. How could there be anybody else? Ratings shot up by almost 5 million as viewers tuned in to see.
John Nathan-Turner’s choice for the fifth Doctor was Peter Davison, a young man and a strong actor who nevertheless found himself standing in the long shadow of his predecessor. People criticized Davison’s decision to play the Doctor with less intensity and more vulnerability than Tom Baker. For some, the boyish appearance just did not jive with their sense of the show that they were used to. But Davison knew what he was doing. Any attempt to duplicate Tom Baker’s style would have labelled him a cheap copycat. To make his Doctor in any way distinctive, he had to play it different.
Moreover, Davison had followed the show in his youth, and was basing his performance on none other than William Hartnell. There was a touch of the erascibility of the old man mixed with the vulnerability of Patrick Troughton. The effect was very much that of an old man trapped in a young man’s body, which led to a tension in Davison’s performance that, in my opinion, made him into a compelling Doctor. For this reason, Davison has fans, including Stephen Moffat and David Tennant. It fleshes out the spectrum of the Doctor’s character. Sometimes the Doctor is a powerful alien like Tom Baker, immune to the frights of the universe that would make us cower. Sometimes, the universe is just so big, and the Doctor is just so lonely. Davison established those tenets of the character.
Nathan-Turner experimented with other elements of the formula as well, bringing back large companion teams, pushing his limited special effects budget, bringing back forgotten and not-so-forgotten monsters to please the fan base. And the show started to develop a fan base. It’s at this time that fan clubs start to form in earnest, conventions start to take off, and Doctor Who enters a golden age on PBS.
Some of these experiments worked. Others didn’t. But for three years the show was riding high, even as in the background, events at the BBC were conspiring to bring everything to a halt.
Here are five (actually six — I cheated again) episodes that you shouldn’t miss from the Davison era:
Writer and former script-editor Christopher Bidmead is largely responsible, along with Davison himself, for establishing the character of the Davison Doctor. His stories tend to emphasize the old-man-trapped-in-a-young-man’s-body characterization, making Davison far less of a “wimp” and more of a strict schoolteacher. Bidmead also liked to emphasize the science of science fiction, and loved to play with ideas.
The story goes that the fourth Doctor’s regeneration at the end of Logopolis came at a bad time, and thus the regeneration is unstable. The fifth Doctor desperately searches for the Zero Room inside his ship to block out all stressful interference. But the Master is pressing his advantage. Tegan and Nyssa are barely able to pull the TARDIS out of the Big Bang, and can only do so by jettisoning the Zero Room for fuel. With no place to recuperate on board, they search for someplace in time and space. Simplicity is the watchword here. The Doctor has to be kept calm and must be in the presence of uncomplicated surroundings in order to recuperate.
So, what does the Master do? He forces the TARDIS to land inside what is essentially an MC Escher print.
Castrovalva functions on all levels. It’s smartly written, well acted, and the costume and set design is to die for. And despite pulling no tricks on Anthony Ainley’s performance (beyond scrambling his acting credit), you will be genuinely surprised to find where he is hiding in all this. All in all, its possibly the most successful start for a new Doctor since Troughton’s Power of the Daleks, and certainly it is the smartest.
Continuing the theme of interesting ideas is Kinda, where the Doctor and company land on the idyllic planet of Deva Loka, and run afoul of a colonial outpost that’s emptying out as the various members go native and run into the jungle. One man, Hindle, used to planets more like Courosant, loses his mind because he thinks the trees are out to get him (this is, incidentally, one of the more convincing portrayals of insanity on the program). When the idiot commander puts Hindle in charge of the base while he goes walkabout, he basically hands the frightened boy the big red button for a nuclear arsenal. And the trees do seem to be creeping close.
That’s fine, says a strange new force that’s lurking in the background of this paradise. When Tegan falls asleep in a serene glen of wind chimes, the force takes over her nightmares, and forces her to give over control of her body. This is the Mara, the serpent of paradise who loves chaos. He’d love nothing more than to convince the peaceful natives to attack the new colonists, and if the planet gets blown up, so much the better.
Kinda is often maligned as “the episode with that snake”, citing what they call a poor special effect near the climax of the tale. Personally, I don’t mind it, and it’s more than made up for by the layered storytelling here, and how of all the characters, no one is truly evil except the Mara. There are some excellent performances, from the insane Hindle to the possessed Tegan, and there are some big ideas, about messing with paradise, and the brutal wheel of history. The Doctor meets a blind shaman who is more than a match for him, and remarkably things get resolved with no one dying (a landmark that hadn’t occurred in 19 years).
If you like Kinda, you will also like Snakedance, the sequel that appeared the following year. If you found Kinda to be a little weird, you’ll probably appreciate Snakedance better, as it ditches some of the big ideas and instead focuses more on action. Here, the Mara inside Tegan takes the TARDIS to the planet where it was born and sets about resurrecting itself while the Doctor tries to solve the mystery of its creation. Janet Fielding’s Tegan takes centre stage, here. Her performance as the voice of the Mara is simply brilliant.
At the end of Black Orchid, producer John Nathan-Turner twists the steering wheel. At this point, he has eleven stories under his belt, and only one monster or villain from the previous seasons has returned (the Master). He decides to resurrect the Cybermen, a monster from the Patrick Troughton era that had only appeared once since The Wheel in Space in 1968. He commissions script editor Eric Saward to write a monster thrash that bashes us with their shock appearance at the end of episode one, and delivers gun battles and moody, claustrophobic scenes in caves and the holds of spaceships until the shocking conclusion.
The story would set the tone for many of the episodes that would follow. The successful return of the Cybermen would convince Nathan-Turner of the benefits of dipping back into the continuity for monsters to resurrect (so much so that the reliance on old villains became a criticism of his later years). And the show that had depended more on ideas suddenly learned the value of blowing it all to hell.
Mind you, Peter Davison’s Doctor was ideally suited to these shoot-em-ups, since he gives every appearance of being out of his depth. He eschews violence, but has no choice but to pick up a gun. He shoots straight, but doesn’t look happy while doing it. Too many villains mistake his distaste for timidity and ultimately pay the price. Stories like Earthshock force the Doctor to choose between his sense of morality and the people he has been charged to protect. The tension is great, even if it does get overused in subsequent episodes and into the Colin Baker era. Resurrection of the Daleks, also by Eric Saward, is notable for being Davison’s only dance with the Daleks and for being the bloodbath that convinces Tegan to leave the TARDIS, but it is essentially a retread of the formula established in Earthshock.
By accident or design, the twentieth season of Doctor Who featured returns of old enemies in every story. The centrepiece of this is the trilogy of Mawdryn Undead, Terminus and Enlightenment, where the Black Guardian, still seething over his defeat at the hands of the Doctor in the Key to Time sequence (and also because the Doctor is, well, the Doctor), shanghais an exiled alien boy named Turlough to come on board the TARDIS with instructions to kill the Doctor. Mark Strickson plays Turlough very well, and his character starts out with an excellent edge that makes him a memorable companion.
After focusing on bizarre, statistically impossible ways to kill the Doctor (Mawdryn Undead is especially subtle, and its resolution suggests the background interference of the White Guardian in protecting the Doctor) and trying to blow up the universe (the surprisingly dark and moody Terminus), the trilogy ends unexpectedly on board a yacht in Enlightenment. A space yacht, to be precise. It turns out that a group of immortal beings named Eternals, bored of their existence, have been given the opportunity to race the solar system in period ships, shanghai-ing period crews to help them on the way. The prize at the end of the race is Enlightenment. What is it? Why is the White Guardian so desperate that no one win it? Can Turlough be free of the influence of the Black Guardian?
Enlightenment is a wonderful, off-balance production. It has the majesty of sailing ships in outer space, but it continues the dark and moody direction of Terminus. The music and the set design complement the storytelling, and good performances abound. The story resolves Turlough’s trilogy, leaving the resolution up to him in an understated and subtle piece of writing.
The Caves of Androzani (1984)
It is a shame that Peter Davison listened to Patrick Troughton’s advice when the older man said “give it three years, then go.” Davison was terrified of being typecast, and had a difficult time of it behind the scenes during the twentieth season. As a result, despite warming to his role for season twenty-one, the decision to depart had already been made.
The show suffered, in my opinion, from not having a fourth Davison season. The move launched the “three year curse” that David Tennant hopes to break with his involvement in the 2009 specials. And Davison could have given the season that followed the anchor of familiarity that might have avoided the problems that followed (more on this later). However, the stars aligned to give Peter Davison a tremendous send-off, that ended his character’s story perfectly, and for years became the hallmark of the best in Doctor Who.
Robert Holmes makes a triumphant return, here. Seen through the lens of the whole show, Holmes is the most prolific and possibly best writer of the original series, but when he came back to write Davison’s send-off, he was somewhat forgotten. His previous tale had been the dire Power of Kroll, and the audience didn’t have the benefits of video cassettes or DVDs to remember his contributions during the show’s Gothic era.
Nathan-Turner seemed reluctant to bring old writers and directors back to the show, seeming to prefer a clean break from the past, but Holmes understood not only Davison’s Doctor, he also understood what made the show work. He brought his talents to the fore here in a heartstopping production where the Doctor and Peri find themselves in the middle of a drug war, and struggle mightily to get out with all their limbs intact.
Robert Holmes’ strengths, his sense of humour, his characterization, merge with the action-oriented serious storytelling of the period to produce a dark and gritty result. The characters are all cynical and machiavellian. Morgus is over-the-top in a Shakespearean sort of way. His antagonist, Sharez Jek, charts a careful path of insanity and megalomania held just barely in check.
Newly minted director Graeme Harper (and you’ll notice his name on a number of credits in the revival, no coincidence there) follows up with a slick and disciplined style that hadn’t been seen on the show since the days of his mentor, Douglas Camfield. The Caves of Androzani marries Phantom of the Opera (Sharez Jek is horribly disfigured and lusts over Peri) with a corrupt futuristic society that is at war with itself over the life-extending drug of Spectrox. And as the Doctor and Peri struggle to stay alive, they have to cope with the fact that they’ve been poisoned with a raw form of the drug.
Almost everything comes together, the acting, the directing and the script. The music becomes doom laden as Davison’s Doctor meets his inevitable fate. There is a rubber monster who could just as easily be cut out of the production, but it’s easily ignored. More importantly, Davison shows the steel that was always in his Doctor’s character, but somewhat deliberately hidden. The differences between his departure and Tom Baker’s is instructive. The fourth Doctor died saving the universe from a mega-villain. The fifth Doctor died saving a friend from messy circumstances.
For years, The Caves of Androzani was seen as the best Doctor Who story ever made. It cemented the reputation of Robert Holmes and gave Peter Davison a lasting legacy. Ironic, then, that less than a year later, everything fell apart.